By Deborah Miller
I hadn’t been to Honey’s in years until last week when I heard that they were on the verge of closing. Now I feel kinda bad about that, especially considering the childhood history I had with the 24-hour diner. Not to mention those middle of the night breakfasts when I was in college.
At some point in the late 50’s or early 60’s, my parents decided to invent Family Night. It was always on a Friday and you were pretty much required to be there. It was very democratic and each week a different family member would get to choose what we would do as a family. I often chose going to a movie. Sometimes we just stayed home eating hot dogs playing Monopoly, Risk, Charades, or “Spank-Tail Hearts,” a wicked card game where the loser got spanked. My sister, Kate, remembers some game where the question was “Who wrote Oliver Twist?” and one of us said “Chubby Checkers.” It was that same sister who often picked Honey’s as her Family Night choice. She was crazy for their spaghetti and onion rings, and yes, she used to order both at the same meal. My brother and I always had the cheeseburger, which I believe was called the “Honey Boy” or “Honey Burger.” Whatever it was called, that first bite brought on that eye-rolling, moan-producing cheeseburger rapture you can only get with “secret sauce.” I was die hard loyal to those burgers until I moved on to eating breakfast there at 2am when I was a student.
So last Friday morning after Joy and I read that Honey’s was closing that very weekend, we decided to go for lunch. You could feel the buzz from the moment we walked in the door and were greeted with a hand-written sign apologizing for being out of nearly everything. We asked, Jazz, our waitperson, what they still had back in the kitchen and she replied “You can’t go wrong with breakfast or a burger” even while handing us menus out of habit while glancing around at two other tables trying to get her attention. Joy got a cheese omelette and yes, I got the diner burger with “secret sauce” after first checking to make sure they actually had some left. It was as good as I remembered and I closed my eyes and offered up a silent “thank you” for the little things.
Y.L. Honey Sr., an entrepreneur from Charlotte, opened the home-cooking restaurant sometime in the early 1960’s, as well as anyone with the company can remember. A bit of a visionary, Honey picked the prime location on Guess Road at a time when the state highway system was starting to grow. Out of the dozen restaurants he owned, several were named after Mr. Honey. With a menu that included home-style Southern cooking, (mac & cheese, okra, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, etc.) Honey’s built a family of loyal local diners who often come back week after week, some even daily, as well as surprising travelers lucky enough to get off I-85 at Exit 175. Current owner, Buck Dickerson, actually started out working the third shift until he and his brother bought the restaurant. Competition from nearby IHOP and Cracker Barrel brought a downturn in business and an annual floating lease renewal forced Dickerson to make the hard decision to close. He has plans to move and re-open, but has yet to identify a location.
Every day the homogenized idea of “home cooking” epitomized by places like Cracker Barrel has an impact on a local business. We don’t want to lose those authentic local places, and we hope Honey’s is back soon.
As Joy and I tucked into banana pudding and warm cherry cobbler with a rectangle of vanilla ice cream, we watched staff, unsure of their future, and regulars, hopeful that Honey’s would re-open soon, sharing goodbye hugs, some with promises to return before the final closing on Sunday.
Of course, I know that “secret sauce” is really just Thousand Island dressing, but Honey’s recipe had a little more of a zing to it. When I asked Jazz about it on our way out, she just smiled. A secret it shall remain.
Deborah Miller, Program Administrator at the North Carolina Folklife Institute, is a native Tar Heel and lifelong foodie with a deep passion for music. Read more at www.simmer2sizzle.com.